“My wish is to stay always like this, living quietly in a corner of nature.” – Claude Monet
Claude Monet has been my favorite artist for as long as I can remember. His work inspired multiple school projects over the years and even a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York during spring break my senior year of high school so that I could finally see his paintings in person. I still have the framed waterlilies poster that hung above my bed growing up, which today brings a small sense of peace and serenity to my workout room at home. Despite my love for the artist who loved these beautiful flower I’d yet to make the trek to the mecca of Impressionism – Monet’s house and gardens in the small village of Giverny – until my most recent trip to Paris.
Monet lived and painted at Giverny for half his life from 1883 until his death in 1926. I read that he fell in love with the area after spotting it from a train window, and designed and tended to his elaborate gardens himself. Monet loved painting nature and in a sense, he brought nature into his home, enclosing it within a private space that offered an infinite and ever-changing source of inspiration to paint and re-paint. Giverny embodied everything that the Father of Impressionism would come to be known for, painting in plen air, capturing natural light with simple brush strokes and those oh-so-famous waterlilies. For art lovers and travelers alike, Giverny makes for an easy and worthwhile half-day trip from Paris. Here’s what you need to know:
How to Get There
There are lots of tour companies that offer organized daytrips to Giverny, but considering how close it is to Paris we opted to venture there on our own. The fastest way to reach Giverny is by train, which departs from Paris’ Saint Lazare station and arrives in in the small town of Vernon in as little as 45 minutes. The Vernon train station is very small and most everything you’ll want to see is within walking distance. From there you have several options to reach the neighboring village of Giverny – take the shuttle bus (15-20 minutes, departs shortly after trains from Paris arrive), rent a bike from the café directly across from the train station (20 minutes, approximately 4 miles of mostly flat roads) or take the scenic route and walk (1 hour, scenic route along a paved pedestrian path).
It was a mild and overcast day so we did the latter, walking through town along Rue d’Albufera and across the bridge over the Seine, passing the white road signs for Giverny (which are meant for cars) before turning right on the footpath marked by a brown sign for “Musées Giverny” (before the church). The path was framed by adorable half-timbered houses with equally adorable yards and open fields where cows quietly grazed sans a care in the world. Without a single other person in sight, we were reassured that we were headed in the right direction by other occasional brown signs highlighting our destination. Eventually the path converged with Rue Claude Monet, which we continued down until we saw the artist’s pink and green-shuttered house appear in the distance. After your visit you can walk back to Vernon along the same path like we did or buy a one-way ticket for the shuttle bus if you’re short on time.
Visiting Claude Monet’s House and Gardens
Giverny is open to the public roughly from March through October, and I hoped our September visit would translate to beautiful blooms and milder temperatures post-tourist season. Regardless of what time of year you go, the best tip I can offer is to arrive before the site opens because the already tight space can feel even more crowded when the tour groups start pouring in. You can also purchase your tickets online in advance to save time waiting in line.
The gardens are divided into two sections, the Clos Normand flower garden and the Japanese water garden, which are connected by a tunnel that passes under the road. Our strategy was to bypass the walled garden and head straight back to the water garden first. This was Monet’s utopia, a free-flowing space dripping with willow trees and wisteria-covered bridges that traverse the garden’s iconic pond, which is blanketed by a delicate layer of the very nymphéas that have been the subject of some of Monet’s most enduring work. Seeing the way the light danced on the surface of the water, with images of the surrounding flora reflected back, it was easy to understand why Monet painted here. He was mad for waterlilies and painted them from every angle, every time of day and in every season (and continued to paint them even after he began losing his eyesight to cataracts). This is the stuff that impressionist dreams are made of.
By contrast, the walled garden follows a strict geometric layout that explodes with colorful blooms from spring through fall. Bold shades of red, yellow, orange, pink and purple once inspired Monet’s palate and continue to manifest themselves in the form of hundreds of varieties of flowers year after year. I was actually surprised by the volume of flowers considering how late it was in the season, ranging in height, shape and size, some of which I had never seen before. We made our way passed the arched trellises that lead towards the entrance of the picture-perfect farm house where Monet and his family of 10 lived. After touring the inside (which features only recreations of his work, no originals) we ended our visit in the light-flooded gift shop, which fittingly used to be Monet’s studio and today sells a lovely assortment of souvenirs like prints, flower seeds and other local products.
Other Things to See and Do
After our visit we grabbed a quick lunch at a little café across the street (there are a handful of other places within the area, although a bit on the pricy side). Also nearby on Rue Claude Monet is the Museum of Impressionism Giverny, which is very small with a single exhibit versus a permanent collection and skippable unless you’re interested in the current topic (combo ticket available with Monet’s house and gardens, otherwise you’re better off seeing his artwork at the Musée d’Orsay, Musée de l’Orangerie or Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris). A little further down the road towards the direction of Vernon you can also visit Claude Monet’s final resting place in the cemetery outside of the little white church of Eglise Sainte-Radegonde.
Back in Vernon a few highlights include the ruined Château des Tourelles and half-timbered Old Mill House on the Seine River near Pont Clemenceau. In town you’ll find the gothic Collégiale Notre-Dame de Vernon church as well as the city’s 12th century Archives Tower. You can also wander Vernon’s quiet streets or grab a quick coffee as you make your way back to the train station for Paris. Alternatively, if you have more time you can visit the Château de Bizy (called the “Versailles of Normandy”) with its ornate interiors and meticulously maintained gardens, located a short 20 minute walk passed the train station.